It’s hard to imagine, I know, that a seventeen-year-old with such a bright future in American letters could be cut loose from a relationship, especially one in which he’d written an epic poem called “Beowill” for his lady friend. But it happened.
It was 1991. My favorite album was U2’s Rattle and Hum, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society, and my favorite television show was Twin Peaks. I owned an ancient Apple II computer that was nearly always open in a mass of improvised wires. I was a month away from graduating high school and I’d already been accepted to the University of Florida where I planned to major in English because, of course, that was the surest path to becoming a writer.
I lived with my mother, stepfather, and infant brother about nine miles outside of Arcadia, a little town in Florida’s bleak pale underbelly. Our house was surrounded by pastures and orange groves, punctuated by the occasional live oak tree leaning close to the ground, laden with Spanish moss.
I was dating a girl who probably doesn’t want her name publicized, and her birthday was on May 11. I was going to miss it, though, because another (admittedly female) friend had invited me at the last minute to the Florida Scholastic Press Association conference (for high school newspaper writers) going on at the same time. So I wrote a great note and left a convenience store rose in our shared locker because that’s what we did back in those days.
(I couldn’t call because my girlfriend’s phone was disconnected at the time. I couldn’t send her an email because the only people in 1991 who had access to that were nerdy college professors and the Defense Department.)
When I got back from the conference, I tried calling again in case her number had been reconnected, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it had. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked when she wanted to celebrate her birthday, but she seemed distracted and distant, telling me she wasn’t feeling well. We got off the phone pretty quickly.
Now, I’m not like this anymore, but back then, I was prone to melodramatic stunts and flamboyant emotional gestures. The thing to do, I reasoned, was to ride my bike the nine miles to town and surprise her for a belated birthday celebration.
(I had no car for a number of reasons, most of them involving the cost of insurance and my unpredictable income.)
So I saddled up and followed the treacherous two-lane highway into Arcadia on my bike. The journey took about an hour or so, but that was okay because that was the present: “Look! I risked my life to come here!”
I arrived at her house not too long before sunset. I propped my bike against a tree and knocked at the door. There was some shuffling inside and she answered, looking surprised and a little aghast, the exact responses I wanted from my romantic gesture.
(All I want in this world is for people to say, “Wow! How did he pull off that amazing stunt?” I’ll settle for, “Wow! Why would he pull off that amazing stunt?”)
She glanced into the house behind her and then back at me, but eventually she invited me in. Seated on the couch was a heavyset gentleman in a Wal-Mart uniform shirt. I nodded curtly to him and sat down. The three of us sat in silence on different pieces of furniture for about five minutes until my girlfriend finally pulled me away into her bedroom.
There, in a vase, was a huge display of roses she’d gotten for her birthday from the guy in the other room. At this point, I started to get an uneasy feeling that there would be a scene when we both told the guy he’d have to leave.
It took her a few tries, but finally she blurted out that yes, he’d sent her the flowers and yes, she knew him from work and yes, she liked him. I nodded, listening, not quite believing. When she stopped talking and it was just her looking at me expectantly, I realized I was the one being asked to leave.
After a nine mile bike ride.
I didn’t say anything particularly dramatic to either of them. I just mustered the little dignity I had, got on my bike, and rode away.
On the way to a friend’s house, I passed a vacant lot where I’d hung out as a kid. The county had cleared it but now it was all grown back, so I took that as a sign I’d be all right. Between that moment and “all right” was a trip to the prom with the girl who’d dumped me, but that’s a whole other story.
It was the start of a strange, dream-like summer that I wouldn’t change at all.